Wet season, Ingham, 2021. The Herbert River overflowed repeatedly, spreading across the flat country around the town, flooding houses and cane fields. Opened in January, a Facebook page, “Ingham floods 2021”, gained 3.7 thousand members and in April was still posting updates on floods.
This was nothing new. Ingham, 112 kilometres north of Townsville and one of North Queensland’s most prosperous towns, has been flooded in seven of the last ten years. The Herbert River catchment runs off the southern Atherton Tablelands and its tributaries pick up water from 9,000 square kilometres of high rainfall country.
Ingham is where luxuriant tropical scenery begins, north of the drier country around Townsville: sugar cane, green hills, creeks. It’s always green here, on the edge of the Wet Tropics.
“Did I tell about my first visit to Ingham?” I ask Con as I clean the windscreen. He is filling up with fuel at the service station on Ingham’s main street, the one we’ve been stopping at for years on our journeys north.
“Don’t think so,” he says over the sound of the pump.
“I was sixteen, on a camping road trip from South Queensland with my family, and we stopped here for the night so Dad could visit an old army mate. Dad had old army mates all over the state. We got to Ingham in the middle of a downpour. The river was flooding. The caravan park was awash.”
Con goes to pay for the fuel, and I finish cleaning the back windscreen.
“Anyway,” I continue as we pull out into the traffic, “Dad’s army mate invited us to spend the night. It was great. A big, comfortable house, dry beds and tropical fruit for breakfast: that’s what Ingham means to me. It was such a relief to get out of the wet.”
For Con, growing up in Innisfail, torrential rain was part of life.
“Floods were fun for us kids,” he says. “Floods meant swimming in your own backyard and not having to wear shoes to school.”
We’re on the Bruce Highway, passing through cane fields on the flat country north of Ingham, and as we cross the Herbert River, Con tells me a story of driving to Ingham when he was young. I like his dramatic stories of growing up in FNQ.
“Mum, Jim and I drove through here at Easter the year I turned fourteen, in Jim’s 1939 Ford, heading south from Innisfail to Townsville. My brother Jim was driving trucks when he was seventeen, delivering fuel to cane farmers around Innisfail on narrow, unsealed roads and through flooded creeks, so the fact that it was pouring rain when we set off didn’t worry us. We were Innisfailites – we had webbed feet.
“There was a minor concern, though: the car had a slow leaking radiator. Every few miles, we would have to refill it with water; but there were plenty of creeks along the way. At Moresby, only eight miles south of Innisfail, we stopped for the first time and I was sent over to the river with a bucket to bring back water for the radiator. Jim poured it in while the engine was running then screwed down the cap. We set out again.
“The rain kept up, and I kept scouting for water. The road was mainly bitumen, a bit patchy, and the car was high enough off the ground to manage the washouts and the water running across it.
“Just out of Cardwell, on a stretch of road awash with sand and water, we met a tiny Triumph sports car. The driver was travelling alone, and he asked us what conditions were like further up the road. He didn’t like what we told him – torrential rain and creeks running across the roads – but he pointed the little car’s nose to the north and kept going.
“We filled the radiator again at the bottom of the Cardwell Range and made it to the top, and then Jim checked the temperature gauge. We needed water again, and soon.
“On the way down the other side, we prayed for a creek. We came to one, all right – ten metres below the road, with scrub-covered cliffs leading down to it. No chance of getting water there. Going downhill was easier on the engine, though; and at the bottom of the range, we found another creek, and I did my job with the bucket again.
“There were no more hills between there and Townsville, so we thought our troubles were over. But north of Ingham, and with still over 120 kilometres to travel, we came out on to the Herbert River flood plain. There were road works. It was chaos.
“The bitumen had disappeared, leaving churned-up mud. Cars were buried up to their axles on the sides of the road, and farmers were trying to pull them out with tractors.”
“You know, people complain about the state of the Bruce Highway, and it’s true you can never drive the length of it, 1700 kilometres from Brisbane to Cairns, without being held up by road works. But what a lot of improvements we’ve seen over the years! I’ll always stick up for the Bruce.”
Con continues his story.
“I looked at Jim. He clenched his hands around the steering wheel and set the car on the safest course he could find through that madness of mud, bogs, cars and tractors, until we were once again on bitumen, and Ingham was only a few miles ahead.
“We made it through to Townsville a couple of hours later. They hadn’t had the heavy rain we’d come through, thank God. Townsville is a dry old dump.”
Country towns can have such disdain for one another. But of course, so can big cities. Sydney and Melbourne, for instance.
“At a garage in Hermit Park, Jim bought a can of Radiator Cement. It plugged up the holes, and on the way home a few days later we didn’t need to fill it once. The sun shone, and the muddy stretch north of Ingham had hardened. The old Ford charged over the Range, and at Cardwell we bought fish and chips, as we always did, and ate them sitting in the car on the oceanfront. By mid-afternoon, in bright sunshine, we were home in Innisfail.
“The next day on my way to school I saw the Triumph sports car driving down Rankin Street. He’d made it through. A gutsy effort. But so was ours.”
“Good story! Let’s stop in Cardwell for fish and chips.”
We’ve had lots of good Ingham experiences. Our Lizzie and Russ lived there for a time in the late 1990s, and we stayed with them in their typical North Queensland house.
Lizzie took me down to Lucinda, the nearby sugar port famous for its jetty, 5.76kms long. Near the beach is a large sign describing some of the creatures that can kill you if you go swimming there.
We went by boat across to rugged, mysterious Hinchinbrook Island for a walk along the beach and swim in Mulligan’s Falls.
Descendants of the migrants that flocked to the cane fields in the twentieth century have given Ingham its distinctive Italian culture. Every year, the Australian Italian Festival is held here. Lou’s Italian Deli in the main street of Ingham is a wonder to behold.
Just south of town is the TYTO Wetlands, with paths and walkways for birdwatching and the impressive Information Centre and Regional Art Gallery.
Spectacular to see, in this richest of all sugar cane areas, is the vast Victoria Mill, with its kilometres of cane trains and lines of cane bins, its huge old rain trees and tall, steaming chimneys.
With Joe and Isabel, two years ago, we drove further south to visit Jourama, part of the lush and spectacular Paluma Range National Park, and swam with turtles and eels in beautiful Waterview Creek.
Instead of just stopping for petrol and hurrying on, I’d like to get to know Ingham better; to visit Wallaman Falls, Australia’s tallest single-drop waterfall, and maybe have a beer at Lees Hotel, which claims to be the original “Pub With No Beer”.
We’ll visit in the Dry Season, though, when the weather up here is perfect.
I don’t have webbed feet.